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White Debt: A Book Review

In his 2022 book White Debt: The Demerara Uprising And Britain’s Legacy of Slavery, Thomas Harding presents a history of the 1823 uprising of Black enslaved workers on Demerara’s sugar plantations in British-controlled Guyana. He structures the history of the uprising to frame the argument for present day reparations to the descendants of those enslaved workers. He makes it clear from the start that his objectivity of the subject and his desire to see reparations paid has been influenced by feelings of his own personal guilt. You see, Harding descends from White ancestors who directly benefited from the work of the enslaved. His family were British tobacco importers during the early 1800’s. 

Harding introduces his book with a reference to the 2020 Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, England. Colston, who died in 1721, sat on the board of the Royal African Company (RAC) for 12 years. During that time, the RAC conveyed over 84,000 people from West Africa to the Americas to be used as slaves. As with so many people in commercial and political leadership during the English colonial period, Colston was a complicated man. With the money earned from selling people, he endowed many charities including churches, hospitals, schools, and poor houses. His charitable giving continued for 275 years through the Colston Society. The society disbanded in 2020 because of the BLM protests. His bronze statue was originally put up in 1895 to celebrate his good works, but being the memorial that it was, all it did on this day was to remind the protestors of Colston’s role in the history of British slavery. Surrounded by a cheering crowd, two protestors tied a rope around the statue’s head and pulled Colston down. The crowd then dumped the statue in Bristol’s harbor. 

After the introduction, Harding weaves the history of the uprising in three sections and from the viewpoint of five different people including the Black enslaved leader of the uprising who was caught but whose execution was commuted, the White Methodist missionary who encouraged the uprising and was later sentenced to death, the White governor of the colony whose procrastination inflamed the uprising, the White Demerara plantation owner who had enslaved the leader of the uprising, and the White store clerk who was conscripted into the local militia to put down the uprising. I was particularly interested in the Methodist missionary’s role in the uprising and how the plantation owners used the enslaved people’s desire to worship as a reward or punishment. The “Uprising” part of Harding’s book makes for an informative, well-written, and entertaining read. I would not be surprised to see it converted into a screen-play at some point. The “Legacy” part of his book is less convincing. 

Harding follows each chapter with a couple of pages detailing his emotional journey through his inherited guilt and his physical journey to Demerara to interview the descendants of the enslaved workers who participated in the uprising. He uses these personal notes to build his case for reparations. Understand that by reparations, Harding supports the goals of the Caribbean Reparations Commission who have developed a 10-point Reparation Plan that would benefit the descendants of enslaved Black people in the Caribbean. Note that the Plan is directed specifically at European nations who benefited from slavery, not at North America. But don’t worry, we have the National African-American Reparations Commission with a similar 10-point plan specifically for the United States. 

To review this book, I had to put away my pre-conceived notions that “collective” reparations – the transfer of funds from one government or trans-governmental entity to another – are nothing more than another socialist wealth transfer scheme that targets governments for policies that ended over 150 years ago. Once I finished the book, I decided that my pre-conceived notions are correct.

I was not convinced that collective reparations as supported by Harding would solve any of the wealth disparities between the descendants of the enslaved and the enslaver. Neither would collective reparations alleviate the feelings of guilt or victimization felt by groups today based upon the actions of their enslaved or enslaver ancestors.

If not collective reparations, then what are Harding’s options to get rid of the tremendous individual guilt that he feels about the actions of his ancestors? He could take the initiative and make individual reparations. He could donate his time, wealth or even the royalties of this book to those that he thinks his family has damaged. This would be in keeping with the actions of his ancestors who individually chose to be tobacco merchants. No one forced them into to profiting from the work of enslaved people. As an aside, I find it curious that Harding does not feel guilty about the lung, throat, mouth, or tongue cancer deaths of those people to whom his ancestors sold tobacco.

The responsibility for the enslavement of people resides with the individuals who carried out the act. Since these individuals have all passed on, does not the societal systems that they created bear some responsibility now? I do not believe so. Economic and governmental systems always reflect the actions, both good and bad, of the individuals from which they are comprised. These systems are not static but evolve along with the attitudes and values of the individuals that support them. The only exception to this institutional drift should be the Church (outwardly as devised by humans) but even it is susceptible to the mores of the day. 

In any event, trying to sift the ancestral good from the bad is impossible. We should be more concerned about the bad choices that we, as individuals, are making today and their impact on our descendants.  

Harding, Thomas (2022). White Debt: The Demerara Uprising And Britain’s Legacy of Slavery. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.